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A personal story for International Women's Day

Women at work and some early examples of female entrepreneurship.

When you’re on a 13-hour flight with the prospect of a further 7-hour flight to look forward to, you need to find a variety of things to occupy yourself.  Even I can’t read solidly for 20+ hours.

I peruse the inflight magazine for available entertainment and find a ‘documentary’ called What Women Want At Work.  Its description is: ‘visit the companies and public administrations where women find more egalitarian and happier work environments.’

For about an hour I was engrossed in interviews with various women, mostly European, from politics, academia, the trades, public and private sector companies.  One comment in particular that has stuck with me was ‘we are not looking at men versus women, but at masculine versus feminine’ in terms of workplace culture, management style, expectations and conduct.

However, what I was most struck by was the story of a UK based entrepreneur by the name of ‘Steve’ Shirley.  Look her up on Wikipedia if you’ve not heard of her – I hadn’t.  In brief, she set up an IT company in the early 60s specifically looking to hire women who had dependents and to create a working environment wherein they could flourish and that supported their particular needs – as opposed to the largely male dominated and hierarchical organisations that existed at the time.   She was clearly a great inspiration.  Indeed, ‘the most successful tech entrepreneur you’ve never heard of’. 

But from a personal perspective, this made me think of my own mother.  She left school at 14 and  worked hard until she proudly held the position of PA to the Managing Director of a well-known advertising company.  In 1960, she became pregnant and had to leave work when the baby was due – no maternity leave or pay in those days!  Once she’d had the baby, she realised that she still wanted to be involved in the world of work somehow.  Childcare was not readily available then and, indeed, would probably have been frowned upon, so mothers were rather more tied to the home.  After discussion with my father, they decided to invest in 3 electric typewriters (the height of modernity in a world long before PCs were commonplace).  My mother approached two former work colleagues who were similarly at home with young babies but also wanting to work.   After discussions with these two women, she loaned each of them a typewriter to use at home and started a typing bureau.  Remember this was largely in the days before printing and photocopying companies were around; documents had to be prepared for printing / photocopying in very specific ways.  For example, before automatic justification of text, the words had to be typed ad hoc and then the characters of each sentence counted and the character spacing of each line calculated individually. Then the document retyped accordingly.  (I have watched it done and it was incredibly laborious.)

Ultimately, my mother ran this business successfully, albeit on the same small scale, until she became terminally ill in 1985.  25 years as a successful businesswoman is surely to be celebrated.  I also had not realised that her actions were so unusual for the time and a great example to me.  Starting your own business will always be a challenge, but perhaps with my mother’s history to learn from, I knew what I was getting into and it was never something to be feared or avoided. 

What surprises me is that it took watching a rather obscure documentary on a long-distance flight to reflect properly on the example that my Mother has been for me, not just in my life, but also in approach to work and business. 

So, on International Women’s Day, and with Mother’s Day looming, let’s celebrate all of those women who have influenced us, supported us and acted as an example – whether they be our Mothers or not – in our work and in our lives.